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Jul 29, 2022

Chief Equity and Partnership Officer brings experience, expertise and fresh perspective to MCEA’s environmental justice work

Eric Ini


7/29/2022, Sarah Horner, Communications Director, MCEA St. Paul Office

Eric Ini joined MCEA earlier this summer as our organization’s first Chief Equity and Partnership Officer. He comes to the position with over a decade of experience advocating for communities and environmental justice both in the United States and across the globe. His passion professionally and personally is “building capacity” in communities, and when he’s not at work, the father of four flexes that strength by bringing children and adults connected to the Cameroon community in Minnesota together to learn tennis. He loves to play tennis, and won the doubles trophy last year at the Cameroon Association of Minnesota’s (MinCam) annual tennis tournament. Eric sat down with our communications team recently to talk about his background, his aims for MCEA, and what he sees as the fundamental roadblocks that impede environmental justice.  


Tell me about your background and how it led you to this role at MCEA?

I have always been passionate about human rights and justice. I was born in Cameroon and graduated with a law degree from my country in 2000 and then left to earn a Juris Doctorate in an American-style law school in South Korea. To earn a living, I worked as an African migrant workers coordinator for a migrants rights organization called Advocates Korea, the Korean branch of Advocates International headquartered in Virginia, USA. There were many Africans in South Korea at that time who were undocumented and worked for companies who later refused to pay them. When the workers would try and claim payment, the company would threaten to have them deported. I spent three years working to organize the African community and telling them if they encountered those kinds of issues they should contact me and I would help them get the money owed to them. We relied on a Korean law that forbid companies from hiring undocumented workers and many times the fine they would face for that was more than the money they owed their employees. We recovered a lot of money for undocumented African workers. Not all the stories were good though, there were many sad ones. 

After my time there, I moved to the United States. I attended Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon, where I specialized in natural resources and environmental law and policy and got my LLM - Masters in Law. Sometime after that I took a job with Greenpeace and worked for about seven years protecting forests from deforestation, land-grabbing and illegal exploitation around the world, but mostly in the Congo basin, which is home to the second largest tropical rainforest in the world after the Amazon. 


That sounds like challenging work. Can you say more about it? What is land-grabbing? 

Land grabbing is large-scale land acquisition by private and public investors - most often multinational corporations - in total and complete disregard of community rights. The free, prior, informed consent of communities is not respected in these land deals. Most often the land is used to establish rubber or palm plantations which are later exported to be used to make tires and cosmetic products. Many of the locals farm and hunt and depend on the land for their livelihood. Most of these people are Indigenous people and use the forest as their pharmacy to harvest herbs to treat themselves and also as a sacred place to worship their ancestors. Then suddenly the land they live on is seized and sold to multinational companies without their free, prior, informed consent or any just or adequate compensation. Displacing Indigenous people and trying to relocate them is like taking a fish out of water - you are killing them.

The companies say they are going to bring development, but the tires are not made in Cameroon or in the Congo Basin. They are made in France or elsewhere. The companies only bring suffering: air pollution, water pollution, and a lot of other environmental, social and economic issues. 


How did you help reclaim stolen land? 

First and foremost, we have to ask the community if they want us to help them. There is a saying: “You cannot go to a funeral and mourn more than the bereaved,” otherwise the community starts suspecting you. They wonder why an outsider cares more about what they have lost than maybe they do.  So the community has to show they are interested in your help and committed and dedicated. If they do not want us, we cannot intervene. Then you start trying to build relationships. You talk to people in the community and start building their confidence. Then we start drafting a campaign strategy to get their land back. We know we can’t go to the government, because the government is the one who violated the law and gave the land away. So we look at the rest of the power structure and see where we might be able to apply pressure. For example, Halcyon Agri is one of the big companies grabbing land in Cameroon. We looked at their customers and learned that Michelin, Continental and Goodyear all buy their rubber from Halcyon Agri. We see that the company is headquartered in Singapore and know we can’t do much there. So we look at its shareholders. We find out that a Norwegian pension fund is an investor and that they have said they don’t want to put their money where there is deforestation or human rights violations. So we send them our research findings about what’s going on and tell them to divest from the company. We also sent the same research findings to Michelin, Goodyear and Continental to put pressure on Halcyon. That is when the company finally starts talking to the community. Halcyon had taken 75,000 hectares and they gave back about 40,000. So you have to find the pressure point. 


Most recently, you worked at Michigan United. What brought you there? 

I read online about the Marathon Petroleum case happening there and how injustice was really in plain view. The company was buying out white neighborhoods and not black neighborhoods. So when I saw Michigan United was involved in the effort to address it and was hiring an Environmental Justice director, I was interested and got the job in October of 2020. 

I spent most of my time there working on the campaign to stop AJAX Paving from locating a new factory in Flint. AJAX produces asphalt, which is used to produce tar. Flint is already disproportionately impacted by water and air pollution, so to add another polluting company like AJAX is like signing a death warrant for the community. 

We formed a very strong community coalition to stop it that got a lot of attention. The Environmental Protection Agency got involved and wrote a letter to EGLE – the local permitting agency in Michigan – telling them they needed to consider the cumulative impacts of the project before permitting it, which the agency ignored and ultimately granted the permit. So we lost that battle but not the war. Our strategy was to deter other polluting companies from coming to Flint by sending the message that they will not have an easy ride –  that we will fight them and fight them to the end. Even though AJAX got a permit, the fight against them is still going on. We appealed the permit decision in court and also Coalition members filed a civil complaint against the agency. AJAX is also suing over requirements they don’t like in their permit. So other companies are going to think twice about coming to Flint. 


What lessons did you learn about how to support local communities in their fight for environmental justice? 

You have to get to know community-based organizations first. You can’t go into a community like Flint and start imposing things. You have to get to know the organizations, the churches, the leaders that people in the community know and trust. The ones who are their neighbors. You also have to inform and educate the people in such a way that they can participate and be involved and trust you. When the community trusts you and knows you are working for their interest, they will come out and show power whenever it is needed. But it takes time for them to believe that. When I go to meetings, I always sit in the back and stay quiet. And if I have a suggestion, I say it in a very careful way so that members do not think we want to take over the coalition or be the face of the problem, because again, you do not want to go to the funeral and mourn more than the bereaved. 


You are stepping into a newly created role at MCEA, how do you plan to approach it? 

To me, the role has two prongs - one internal and one external. The external is about how we build relationships with partners. How we create new partnerships; how we maintain existing ones in a way that benefits our partnership and also benefits MCEA as well as the work that we do. I have not yet met many of our partners, but I hope to start that process soon so I can see what they do and what they want. 

For the internal prong, I am trying to see what MCEA has done as far as Diversity Equity and Inclusion work so I can help develop that work more and move it forward. The organizations I worked at before were very diverse organizations. We had many Black, Hispanic, women, and gay colleagues, and very few white people. But that doesn’t mean those organizations were more inclusive than other organizations that are less diverse. “Diversity” and “inclusion” are two separate things. One is just a photo shoot, and the other is about being deliberate and accountable especially within internal rules and practices. Both of the previous organizations I worked for looked good in a photo but they are still struggling with inclusivity and equity. So it’s not an easy ride. It’s a step by step approach and will take time to get there. 

Just feeling the vibes at MCEA, I think the people here are open-minded to move forward through this process in a (deep) way. Especially the CEO, Kathryn Hoffman. She is somebody who really wants this. So if the leadership starts doing this, I think it will be easy to start moving the rest of the staff. I don’t expect to have 100 percent results tomorrow. It’s going to be a process, and the steps we take to get there are sometimes more important than the results.


What do you mean by that? 

If you are giving out t-shirts and you give everyone an XL, you are missing the point, but if you take the time to order the size that fits everybody you are practicing equity and inclusivity. So that’s the perspective I’m bringing. If every time MCEA has an event they give me a hamburger, you are not going where we need to go, but if I go to an MCEA event and also see rice and beans, then those are steps in the right direction. They are small steps but they show me that we are at least thinking about inclusivity. We will need to revisit our hiring policy, procurement policy, and other HR policies to make sure that they reflect the organization’s intentions with DEI, and we will be evaluating our work every year to make sure that we are making progress.

It will take commitment, devotion, open mindedness and collaboration to reach where we want to go, but we can get there with the right steps. 


Much of your work will focus on environmental justice, an issue that’s thankfully received increasing attention over the years. Even so, I think there are a lot of people who don’t really understand what it means. How do you define environmental justice? 

A lot of people understand environmental justice to mean justice for the environment, but the truth is environmental justice is about community. It’s about people, and in particular a certain group of people. Environmental racism doesn’t affect everybody; it affects a certain group of people who are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms, like water and air pollution. It’s the result of systemic racism or government action, because the government is responsible for most of the negative environmental impacts on communities. They give the permits… Many years ago it was done intentionally as a part of a racist agenda, now it’s not necessarily a part of a racist agenda but it’s become embedded in our political system. It’s part of how things are done, and in that way it can tie hands. 


Can you say more about that? What is embedded in our systems that makes it hard to advance environmental justice? 

Money, for one. Say you have a Governor who cares about the environment but she receives money from the company who wants to build a fossil-fuel plant in her state, and she wants to get re-elected. Money always talks. Another is what we call agency capture, where our government agencies who are supposed to look out for the good of the people get captured by the companies they are supposed to permit and look out for their interests instead. The other is that not everyone who is passionate about the environment is passionate about environmental justice. I really saw this when I was with Greenpeace. Thousands of people from abroad - the United States, England – signed our petitions to protect land and the environment, but when we have petitions concerning Indigenous people being displaced, we have like 100 people sign. These people care about protecting the environment for hunting, the safari, the trees for clean air, but they don’t care about the people of color who are there. The Governor of Michigan might care about electric vehicles or keeping the beach clean where her lake home is located, for example, but she doesn’t necessarily care about the people of Flint, the people of color who can’t afford electric vehicles, who won’t visit her beach.  


That’s so frustrating. How do we get people to understand the inextricable link between the collective good and individual good? 

We have to change their mentality. Western countries always think they can use their money to solve problems. But we know that will only take you so far. A little virus crashed the stock market. We live in a global village. What happens in China has an impact on us here. What happens in Flint has an impact elsewhere. And with climate change we know that what happens anywhere will surely find a way to also meet you where you are. 

So we have to quit thinking that money can solve these problems, and start talking about what we are seeing and feeling around us in honest terms. Those are not wildfires, they are climate fires. They are not droughts, they are climate droughts. This extreme heat is climate heat. People need to really understand how these experiences are connected to the climate crisis, and how none of us are immune from its consequences, no matter how much money we have or where we live.